Deputy prime minister Dominic Raab will not be hosting a big Christmas party for Ministry of Justice staff this year, but will instead be holding “appropriate drinks at a smaller scale” because of concerns over coronavirus.
But he insisted that the public should feel free to go out and enjoy festive events this year, and said that ministers trust them to rely on their own “common sense” in deciding what precautions to take.
Mr Raab is the latest government minister to discuss festive plans in a time of omicron, after cabinet colleague Therese Coffey said people should avoid kissing under the mistletoe this year and health secretary Sajid Javid said they could kiss whoever they liked.
UK Health Security Agency chief Jenny Harries, a senior adviser to the prime minister, was accused of prompting the cancellation of parties when she said that people should avoid socialising “when we don’t particularly need to” in order to stem the spread of the omicron variant.
But the deputy prime minister insisted that it remained a matter of personal responsibility for individuals to decide what precautions they wanted to take.
“I’m not going start telling people who they can’t kiss,” he told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show.
“The parties are fine. Enjoy being amongst loved ones this Christmas. It is not the job of the government to micromanage all of these different common-sense judgments.
“We set the framework, we give advice, but we also trust people to enjoy things and do things in a responsible way. And we understand that whatever the rules say, there is still a little bit of nervousness out there.”
He added: “Our message is this – enjoy Christmas this year. The vaccine rollout means we’re in a position to do so ... People need to see that social interaction, whether it’s at work or amongst family and friends.”
So far, domestic restrictions announced by the government in response to omicron have amounted only to mandatory mask-wearing in shops and on public transport, and self-isolation for those coming into contact with people infected with the new variant.
The approach stands in stark contrast to the tougher controls in some other European countries, such as Ireland, where nightclubs have been closed and social gatherings at home limited to three households.
Aides to the justice secretary said that the ministry had not scheduled a department-wide Christmas party for 2021, but Mr Raab made clear that he was not advising the public to cancel their plans.
He told the Trevor Phillips on Sunday programme on Sky News that the government was always subjected to the “Goldilocks criticism”, with some people saying it is doing too much while others say it is not doing enough.
“The rule is very clear,” he said. “People can go on and have Christmas parties. Of course employers will want to use common sense about how they do that. We don't want to substitute for that discretion and that common sense.
“We won't be having a Ministry of Justice-wide Christmas party this year. But we will be having, I think, appropriate drinks at a smaller scale.”
Labour’s shadow environment secretary Jim McMahon told Sky: “We have been very clear that we do not believe that Christmas parties should be cancelled.
“We believe that hospitality has been through a very difficult period, and it is very important for hospitality that we continue in the way that we want to. But that can only happen if we are not undermined by new variants coming into this country that completely take apart the vaccination rollout.”
Asked whether proof of vaccination should be required from people attending large events, Mr McMahon said: “We don’t want to have unnecessary rules in place that really undermine confidence in hospitality, confidence in going out over Christmas. But equally we do want people to be cautious.
“We are not on the other side of this yet, there are still many cases that are being identified, there are still many people who are in hospital through Covid and we don’t know yet the extent of the new variant, so a cautious, common-sense approach is what’s needed.”
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